The Adelaide Crows surprised esports enthusiasts and the mainstream press when they announced they were purchasing Legacy Esports last year. In the ten months since, a second AFL club – Essendon – purchased their own team. This weekend, the two teams meet for the first time in the OPL.
When the Adelaide Football Club announced they were buying Legacy Esports last year, the response was overwhelmingly positive. They became the first professional sporting organisation in Australia to buy into the fledgling new industry.
Shortly after the acquisition, Kotaku talked to Nigel Smart, COO of the Adelaide Football Club and it was clear that they were heavily invested in not just the success of their team, but building esports in Australia up by using the knowledge accumulated over 26 years of competing in the AFL. In the ten months since Kotaku first spoke to Smart, Legacy Esports have made a lot of moves – both commercially and professionally.
They recently announced partnerships with Nielsen Sports and global electronics powerhouse Samsung, who will supply the team with SSDs and monitors. Last month, they acquired Overwatch team ‘Stunner Meal with Caramel Sundae’ who will compete, this week, in the Australian Overwatch Contenders Series.
Before the Crows acquired Legacy, Nigel Smart knew very little about esports. He admits that he was very green – but he was willing to learn.
“18 months ago, I didn’t know enough about esports, the system here in Australia, the stakeholders, the tournament organisers, the teams, the personalities, the events.”
In the last 18 months, he’s spent everyday working on esports in some form or another, all the while, he’s overseen the Adelaide Crows finish the AFL season as Minor Premiers and eventually, the heart-breaking defeat of losing a Grand Final.
Smart has spent most of his life thinking about football. He won two premierships with the Adelaide Crows, in 1997 and 1998, but now he’s getting excited about esports.
Working so closely with the Legacy team, Smart describes how those humble beginnings have flourished into a passion. He plays these games with his 12-year old son now.
“It’s just fun to be involved. There’s great opportunity in the space.”
For Smart, these first 10 months with Legacy under the Adelaide Crows masthead have been invigorating because they’re different. He’s able to take the Club on a tangent that, when he took over some five years ago, wouldn’t have even been on his radar.
It’s these new opportunities that you can tell he’s excited about.
You may think that one of the goals in the coming year would be to start to synergize the AFL fans and the esports fans, but echoing the sentiments he presented shortly after Adelaide acquired Legacy, he explains that while the two fanbases overlap, it’s not high on his list of priorities to marry the two – that will happen naturally.
A recent intra-club survey revealed that 35 percent of their fans know what Legacy is, but they don’t necessarily understand esports.
Smart’s totally okay with that.
“I’m not necessarily wanting to knock down the door of the traditional fanbase. I don’t need to force it. I need to make it easy enough for them to find us.”
For Smart, 2018 is all about development.
On February 15, Legacy announced that they had acquired Stunner Meal with Caramel Sundae, an amateur esports team that had qualified for the Overwatch Contenders Series through the open division.
The Contenders Series pits the best amateur Overwatch players against each other in seven different regions of the world for a total prize pool of over $4 million. The series begins March 12 in Australia, and with this acquisition, Legacy enter competitive Overwatch scene for the first time.
The captain of the team, Isabella ‘Straawbella’ Chan, is a Legacy Esports alumni, debuting as a member of their League of Legends team long before the Crows had acquired them. Notably, this was the first time a female had played in the competition.
Smart explains that part of the appeal of acquiring the Overwatch squad wasn’t just about developing another team, but also touched upon the core ideals of the Adelaide Football Club. He makes it clear while we’re chatting just how highly he thinks of Straawbella and how she’s found her feet in competitive Overwatch.
“One of the reasons why that team was attractive to us – and we were looking at Overwatch for a little while – was she’s the captain of the team and she’s a female” he explains.
Diversity is something that the Crows have been championing with their first professional women’s AFL team in the AFL Women’s League last year. Smart sees the Overwatch team signing – and Straawbella’s addition to Legacy – as an extension of this.
“From a club point of view, we’ve got a women’s team, so pushing at diversity through our teams and what we’re doing is important to us as a club.”
Investing time in competitive Overwatch isn’t all about generating immediate success. Smart understands how success is achieved – he’s experienced it first hand in the AFL, first as a member of the Adelaide Crows ’97 and ’98 Premiership teams and as COO when the Crows won the AFLW last year.
Acquiring Stunner Meal with Caramel Sundae is just another step in Legacy’s commitment to developing the scene down under, encouraging females to get involved and to ensure that there are pathways in place for esports professionals to make their mark on the world stage.
When speaking of that development, Smart can’t help but let some of the traditional AFL lingo slip into his explanation.
“Probably what we’re trying to achieve is – we just build that connectivity between junior and grass roots right through to professional opportunities overseas. If we can provide that to Australian players then that’s a great result.”
It’s already paying dividends. One of Legacy’s junior players – Lawrence Hui – was signed to the team during the 2017 LoL season but was recently bought out by Echo Fox Academy in the North American Academy League. Smart explains that he was under contract, but the buyout would have helped make Hui’s ‘dreams come true’.
That philosophy of development doesn’t just apply to their own players. The Crows, Smart says, are more than willing to help other sporting organisations get into the space too.
Adelaide acquiring Legacy made other organisations sit up and take notice. Unlike AFL, where there is a certain level of autonomy and independence, the Crows weren’t concerned about other sporting bodies – or clubs – getting into the game.
In fact, Smart explains, they wanted to help.
“If we can help sporting teams get into esports, we do that, we offer advice and we tell them our story, we kind of cut out the bullshit and go ‘esports is an opportunity’ and we take them through the journey if we can help.”
It certainly helped the Essendon Football Club to take a serious look at what they could do in the industry.
Last last year, the club purchased Abyss and their League of Legends team. Unlike the Crows, who chose to leave Legacy Esports as its own distinct brand, Essendon committed to rebranding Abyss under their own name. Thus, the Bombers LoL team was born.
Somewhat surprisingly, though the teams are rivals on the AFL field, the relationship between Crows CEO Andrew Fagan and Essendon CEO Xavier Campbell was one of the reasons Essendon dived in.
“Andrew and Xavier get along well. From an esports point of view, [Essendon] had some questions about esports and we helped them formulate their base knowledge. We supported them in a few ways – and supported their entry and helped them get into esports” explains Smart.
This weekend, the two clubs will face off for the first time in the OPL.
Six days later, their respective AFL sides will meet in Round 1 of the AFL season at Etihad Stadium.
It provides a tantalising preview of what could be in the near future.
Could we see OPL curtain-raisers on AFL game days?
Well, just 18 months ago, Nigel Smart didn’t know all that much about esports. This weekend, he’ll be watching, cheering and tweeting as Legacy take on the Bombers.